Let’s put aside — just briefly, because that’s the best we can hope for — the hubbub of broadly and furiously expressed but narrowly based opposition to the Stop & Shop expansion proposal. Instead, this page believes that Islanders will be better served by an earnest, common sense struggle to consider the good and the not so good of this undeniably substantial and highly visible project.
It seems grandly unrealistic to argue that the new Stop & Shop will alter the character of the Vineyard or of Vineyard Haven. Like the Roundabout, which was deplored in the years leading to its construction as a death blow to Island-ness, the new grocery store will look very different from what is there today. The building will be much bigger than the dilapidated market it will replace. It will stand out by virtue of its scope and height by comparison with the buildings it will replace. But, it is not designed as a big box store like Cronig’s State Road Market. Rather the architectural effort has been to mute the building’s visual impact, and the designers have generally succeeded. What Stop & Shop will build to replace the current market, the restaurant next door, and the house — a rundown apartment building that has been exalted in this debate to historic registry status — will be better looking than anything else that now exists along the short stretch of Water Street on which it fronts. And, Island-ness will survive the alteration.
A bigger, better market will attract more customers, and certainly most of those new customers will drive to the store. Still, traffic studies do not suggest that the added auto traffic will crush the circulation of traffic along that jammed road, whose congestion is primarily the responsibility of Steamship Authority service at one end of Water Street and the mess that is Five Corners at the other — neither the responsibility of Stop & Shop. Stop & Shop plans to add more than 40 parking spots beneath the grocery store, an important plus in a neighborhood where parking is miserably difficult and scarce. The removal of big truck deliveries from the north side of the building will be an important improvement, making possible walking paths along the side of the building and landscaping to improve the appearance. The revision of the town parking lot will make it better looking and more efficient, welcoming, and useful for drivers, walkers, and cyclists than it is now.
The financial contributions Tisbury officials negotiated with Stop & Shop will help the town better manage parking and traffic in the neighborhood, and although $2 million would be better than $1 million, the agreed upon contributions will do some good, and the project as a whole — market expansion and parking lot revision, taken together — ought to stimulate Tisbury planners to take a hard-eyed look at what their zoning regulation has wrought along the corridor from the Steamship Authority terminal to the Lagoon Pond Drawbridge. That strip of devastation is a creature of town and regional planning. If the Stop & Shop project spurs a rethinking of Water Street-Beach Road development rules, with an eye to attracting business investment and creating an environment that pleases Islanders and their visitors, it will have done the town a great service. And if the town and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission would only undertake the planning and political effort to get the Steamship Authority out of town — because Stop & Shop makes sense in downtown Vineyard Haven, but the ferry terminal does not — well, that would be a bit of God’s work.
In sum, this is a good plan — not perfect, not perfectly in tune with every Islander’s world view, not a solution to every existing problem in the Water Street neighborhood, and certainly not a solution to every imaginable problem — but it will do some good for shoppers who will benefit from competition and choice, for businesses in the neighborhood who will consider fresh investment in an area that is rejuvenated, and for a town that has tolerated, and even enforced an attitude of dilapidation, but may recognize an opportunity for healthy change.